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The Milwaukee Bucks are treading dangerous ground full of wonderful and terrifying possibilities

After shipping out J.J. Redick in a three-team trade Tuesday, the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves with a large amount of cap space and dwindling options on which to use it. The next few days are critical to the future of the franchise.


This looked like a summer of opportunity for the Milwaukee Bucks, and through the first few days of free agency they've worked hard (or hardly worked?) to keep their options open. Their first-round draft pick was an obvious play for the future, and now the Bucks have waved goodbye to a pair of free-agents. First Mike Dunleavy Jr. agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal with the Chicago Bulls, a smart move made with little fanfare and accompanied by many longing sighs from Bucks fans. Then Tuesday night the Bucks agreed to a three-team trade that will send J.J. Redick to the Los Angeles Clippers on a 4-year, $27 million contract. The Bucks were unable to land point guard Eric Bledsoe, a surprising and disappointing revelation for many fans who were still dreaming sweet dreams after rumors from Monday indicated trade talks were ongoing. They did receive two second-round picks (one from each team, reportedly) for facilitating the deal, however.

While both Redick and Dunleavy remain on the Bucks' ledger until the July Moratorium ends on July 9th, their eventual departure clears a little over $14 million in the form of their cap holds: approximately $9.3 million for Redick, $4.9 million for Dunleavy. While the Bucks remain over the cap due to large holds for Monta Ellis (should be $16-17m) and Samuel Dalembert (appx. $8.7m), they're much closer to having a level of financial flexibility they haven't seen in some time. It's still anybody's guess what will happen to Monta Ellis, but Dalembert is almost certainly gone, whether the Bucks simply renounce him or manage to swing another sign-and-trade.

One might assume that the possibility for big cap space and a generally apathetic front office attitude toward the early days of free agency, typically filled with the more head-scratching agreements of the offseason, would delight Bucks fans. But you would be wrong, because these are Bucks fans we're talking about for cryin' out loud. Instead, many are shifting nervously in their chairs and tugging at collars, wondering which laps all these bags of money will eventually be dumped in. And to be fair, there are reasons to be very, very afraid. The Bucks "have to" spend a certain amount of money on the roster to reach the salary floor. I use quotes because it's not like they get kicked out of the league if they don't--they simply pay the difference in equal amounts to each player on the roster, though that's not something Herb Kohl is likely to be too excited about. There's also the little matter of actually assembling a complete roster: the Bucks still have just ten players under contract (counting Antetokounmpo and Wolters) and only two of them are guards. So there are going to be some contracts coming in either via trade or free agent signings.

History doesn't lend Milwaukee much credit in that regard. Their most recent free agent frenzy netted the disastrous deals of John Salmons and Drew Gooden. The former was ditched by trading out of the lottery in the 2011 draft, the latter is a candidate to be amnestied this summer (note that such a move has to be completed within the first week after the July Moratorium ends). The Bucks' best free agency decision in recent years was arguably the Dunleavy signing, a small deal made with exception dollars that carried very little risk. The Ersan Ilyasova extension has also proven smart to date. But when it comes to long-term, big money deals, Gooden and Salmons are the two most notable pieces of John Hammond handiwork, with a third more murky instance being the reported extension offer to Monta Ellis.

This naturally has people scared of what will come next, especially as they watch many of the more acceptable targets accepts offers from other teams:

  • The Timberwolves will retain G/F Chase Budinger with a 3-year, $16 million offer which includes a player option in year 2. The Bucks were reportedly going hard after Budinger and may have in fact been close to nabbing him.
  • The Wolves will also sign shooting guard Kevin Martin to a 4-year, $28 million contract. Martin was reportedly one of the first players contacted by the Bucks when free agency opened. On the flip side, the move likely ends Andrei Kirilenko's tenure in Minnesota. He played well last season and could be a good fit for the Bucks on a short deal, even if the annual salary was high.
  • Tony Allen, another player the Bucks reportedly had interest in, will stay with the Grizzlies on a 4-year deal.
If the Bucks are set on making a splash in free agency, every signing will presumably push them a little bit closer to a big offer for somebody still left on the market, and frankly there aren't a lot of inspiring options lefts, particularly at shooting guard. Tyreke Evans and Andre Iguodala both received substantial offers, and there hasn't been much word as to any interest in the pair from Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Brandon Jennings doesn't seem to be popping up in any rumors. All this makes it a short logical leap to some hefty overpayment for a mediocre (or worse) player who will just restart the cycle.

There is a second possibility, though, one that is admittedly difficult to have any real faith in but holds the sort of promise we've been craving for what seems like forever. The Bucks' 2013 modus operandi has an unfamiliar look that closely resembles a roster teardown. Granted, the few moves made thus far have required little effort on Milwaukee's part. Dunleavy walked of his own volition, and Redick would have probably done the same if not for the trade. Yet the team is already being grilled for making massive mistakes they haven't even made yet. The evidence, objectively, points to a rebuilding plan taking shape, and people are strangely upset. Much of it has to do with continued venom from the Tobias Harris trade that caused this mess in the first place, but I just don't see a ton of value in tying the two together. Yes, that swap was a huge mistake (I freely admit to defending it at the time, but I quickly realized how wrong I was), but how would letting Redick leave for nothing be better? And yes, the Bucks missed out on landing Bledsoe, but it's possible they were never as close to getting him as we thought.

Are the Bucks setting themselves up to be bad in 2013-2014? They're definitely in a position to do so. Would Kohl allow something like that to happen? Most would say no, and yet most would also wonder aloud how anybody in the organization could look at last season as a success. But they did, and we believe them without reservation. We've written off whole press conferences for being nothing more than flowery quotes for newspaper reporters working on deadline and then carved in stone words that seem completely unbelievable. There's precedent, sure, but part of that is just seeing what you want to see.

I want to see the Bucks change their approach, use their cap space wisely as an asset for future growth instead of immediate survival, and accept that it's fine to be quite terrible for a year if the cost of being average is daunting. There are finally reasons to believe those things are possible. I've been burned by optimism many times before with this team, but I keep coming back, and now I finally feel like I have a compelling reason to do. Maybe that's just more pointless wishful thinking. Then again, maybe it's not a bad idea to hold off folding until you see the river.

But seriously, if they go crazy with all this cash, you guys can pick up torches and pitchforks at my place.